Hazardous air and brown rain: Is this the new normal for Australian workers?

smokey air

Smokey air in Melbourne.

I tried to work from home last week, but it was just too hot to work from my prefered perch on the deck, and our living room aircon doesn’t reach the home office. I had sweat running down my back; I felt gross.

Last week, our whole business was down from 10am to 5pm due to our hosting provider (Amazon Web Services) being affected by severe heat and bushfire-related factors in the Sydney region. What followed was a bit of internal panic, a few justifiably annoyed clients, and a gut-wrenching internal dialogue, asking ‘is this the new normal?’

That same day, Canberra Airport was closed due to bushfires, and on Friday, Sydney Airport shut down flights due to heavy rainfall and hail. These airport disruptions have affected many in our business circle during the last 12 months when travelling interstate.

Missed meetings from the delays, and complaining about the five hours’ sleep because we got bumped to the 10.30pm flight. Seriously, we shouldn’t even be expected to work under such circumstances.

Smoke haze in major cities has caused smoke alarms to go off, resulting in the evacuation of whole office buildings. Anyone that keeps an eye on their finances can do some quick calculations to figure out what it costs a business when a whole team is standing in the evacuation area waiting to be let back inside.

Oh and while the team are standing there, I hope they are making the most of the hazardous air and brown rain that they may have had the pleasure of experiencing during their commute into work.

So about that commute… What about that cool startup that has perks like lunchtime yoga, fruit bowls and encourages everyone to cycle into work, because we all know a fit body results in a more productive and happy worker, right? Well, do you still want to encourage them to cycle into work knowing the volume of smoke they will be breathing in on the way?

Now in comparison to the devastating impact that these bushfires have had on communities, wildlife and businesses across the country, these above points are absolutely minuscule. The dairy farms that have had their herds incinerated and the BnBs and corner stores on the South Coast that are now piles of ash — these stories make our hearts ache, and as a nation, our priority should be getting them back on their feet and protecting them from the undeniable effects of climate change.

But, when we take a moment to take stock of what is already upon us, we have to ask, is it the ‘new normal’ that the unscathed, city-bound, office worker, with smooth fingertips from tip-tapping on their keyboard, will now face for the rest of their working lives?

What do we do from here? I don’t have an answer.

If history is anything to go by, we will continue to act for the short term, and then like a frog in hot water, just adapt to the new normal.

We host a ping pong tournament to raise funds for a Koala Sanctuary, we all take a social stance and refuse to do business with the likes of Adani. You donate 10c from every app download to the Red Cross.

Yes, every bit helps, but how long will that last until everyone has sympathy fatigue?

Regardless of what we do now, there is still that baby joey hopping around with scorched feet, searching for a drop of water in their blackened land.

There will still be the businesses that are making their whole team redundant because they don’t expect any tourists to visit their town in the next six months.

And the optimistic business that holds hope that all the urban dwellers will come holiday in their little town will still be laying off their workers in three months time when everyone’s focus moves to whatever the media is now covering.

And then next year these fires will start up all over again. And the same the following year. And by then, this will just be normal.

The sensitivity of the smoke alarms will be adjusted and the lunchtime company yoga sessions will be moved indoors to the aircon-filtered room. Then, we will ditch the bandages from the office first-aid kits to make way for the Ventolin inhalers.

You wake up, put on your face mask, jump on your electric scooter (because carbon emissions, yo!), and we’ll all think back to those days of clear skies and how silly our general manager looked when the ping pong hit them right on the nose. Ha, that was hilarious.

Us: ‘Oh don’t worry, I’m doing all I can for the environment. Did I tell you I bought some wine from this place in the Adelaide Hills that burnt down in December? It’s a great way to support those small businesses that were affected.’

Barista: ‘Would you like to drink here or take away?’

Us: ‘Take away please, but I forgot to bring my KeepCup.’

Welcome to the Australian urban worker 2.0.

NOW READ: Sydney tech groups form climate change combat squad

NOW READ: “It’s not charity, it’s investment”: #BuyFromtheBush founder Grace Brennan gives Australia Day address


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